In 2006, The Seattle Times launched an eye-opening investigative series on the treasure trove of court documents improperly sealed by judges. The Times went to court and got many of those records unsealed. But some judges, apparently, didn't learn their lesson. The state Supreme Court ruled today that Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff erred when he sealed exhibits produced in open court relating to the Maurice Clemmons cop-killing case.
The exhibits, including police files, had been on display last summer in the trial of Clemmons' sister Latanya, who was charged with providing assistance to her brother after the murder. (She was eventually convicted.) But immediately after prosecutors had presented the evidence, several other accused accomplices, whose trials were then pending, sought to have the exhibits sealed. When Chushcoff's ruled in their favor, the Times filed a motion with the Supreme Court, called a writ of mandamus, that is essentially a fast-tracked appeal.
The paper used the same motion to challenge an earlier order that prevented the release of even more police documents. Court records weren't at issue here. Rather, they were files from the Pierce County Sheriff's Office that the Times had requested. And the office was prepared to turn them over. But alleged accomplices objected to this as well, arguing that they wouldn't get a fair trial if the police files were splashed over the pages of the newspaper. Pierce County Superior Court Judge Susan Serko agreed, signing an order preventing their release in May.
The stakes are high. Alleged accomplice Darcus Allen, who prosecutors say drove Clemmons to the murder scene, may face the death penalty.
Even so, the Supremes today said that public records can't be categorically withheld just because someone thinks they can't get a fair trial. A defendant must make a case record by record, showing how each document makes it "more probable than not" that a trial would be tainted. And a judge, when considering such a request, must consider alternatives to suppressing public information, like sequestering jurors.
Times attorney Eric Stahl says he's glad about the ruling, since more and more defendants have been trying to stop the release of documents using the fair trial argument.
Still, while the Supreme Court vacated both trial court rulings, it did not order the documents in question released. That likely means that the issue will go back to Superior Court, according to Stahl.